Affirming student differences: Creating an environment of inclusion

Note: This is the first in a series of three blog posts highlighting strategies educators can use to affirm student differences in the classroom.

As one semester comes to an end, the opportunity of another presents itself. As educators look to renew their classroom culture in the new year, the first few weeks can be a time to return focus to the basics–making students feel safe and welcome while at school. Where should one start?

It’s a painful truth that many students, especially those from families outside the dominant culture, have had very few positive school experiences. In fact, negative experiences with schools and teachers may go back generations in their families. 

This makes creating a classroom environment of inclusion all the more important. So what can you do? Start by focusing on four simple things–physical environment, class norms, inclusive conversations, and student collaboration.

Physical Environment. Make your classroom a place that reflects the diverse backgrounds of your students. Incorporate the languages your students speak at home. Hang maps, flags, and artwork that represent the cultural diversity of your community. Communicating affirmation in the design of your physical space is a great first step to creating an environment of inclusion.

Class Norms. Inclusive class norms begin with a conversation. Rather than explaining classroom expectations to your new students, de-center yourself from the process.  Students and families feel affirmed when they see their own values reflected in the expectations of a classroom. A conversation (or many conversations) around class norms gives an educator the chance to step back and be a learner, a habit encouraged by many Toyota Family Teachers of the Year. 

Inclusive Conversations. Encourage conversations about differences. And before you do so, remember that students may not know how to have these conversations. That’s why you teach them. Show students these conversations aren’t scary by inviting them to learn about your differences first. Model respectful questioning techniques. Explicitly teach inclusive vocabulary. Hang an anchor chart to help students remember conversation strategies. You may find that teaching inclusion isn’t all that different from teaching anything else. 

Student Collaboration. Finally, encourage student collaboration. This might seem like a no-brainer. After all, educators have known for decades that children are social learners. However, many practitioners still see student-centered collaboration as “letting go” of the learning environment, and that can be scary. But the more often practitioners give students a chance to work with and learn from those who are different from them (and all students are different from each other), the more they encourage a classroom climate that is open, respectful, and compassionate. 

Building an inclusive environment comes with challenges. But it’s worth it. Just as with teaching any new skill, it takes practice, and it takes time to truly see the impact. Stick with it–we can’t wait to hear how your efforts to build an inclusive environment will benefit your students in the coming year!